by Jane Anderson, Columnist & Featured Contributor
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]T[/su_dropcap]HE DEBATE NEVER ENDS, does it, about foods that are good for your body, others you should avoid and those which should never pass through your lips. I picked up this book, or should I say hefted it from the table, and was immediately impressed. I had read that this is the second edition of the original book and that it contained over 300 new recipes. I hate to cook. Recipes don’t strike my interest, but that’s why this book, The World’s Healthiest Foods, was so attractive to me. In this book, while there are hundreds of recipes, the majority of the 1060 pages are devoted to educating readers on food. How to cook it is just part of the package. The author, George Mateljan, did in-depth research and studied foods around the globe, documenting his discoveries about foods attributed to good health and longevity. He also has a website, newsletters with tips and recipes that promote healthy eating. Ready to learn something new? Let’s tour the book and see what you think.
The author lays the foundation for educating readers on every aspect of food. George Mateljan divides his book into five parts where readers can turn to learn about what they crave in that moment. Condensing over a thousand pages into less than two thousand words and still cover every piece of important information isn’t plausible, but sharing facts from each segment is well within that realm.
Part 1: Benefits of the World’s Healthiest Foods
If you’ve ever taken a biology class, or if you’ve had the advantage of taking a class on nutrients and their effects on the human body, these chapters will be familiar. Get ready though, because you will dig deep into factors of ‘healthiest’ foods. Mateljan’s philosophy says to earn the label “World’s Healthiest Foods” must measure up to these criterion. Whole foods: complete with all their natural endowment of nutrients. Nutrient-rich foods: research-demonstrated benefits such as preventing chronic disorders. Familiar foods: common, recognizable that most people know about. Readily available foods: nutritious foods found at the local market. Affordable foods: seasonal, purchased locally. Foods that taste good: vibrant, pleasing taste, enjoyable to eat.
You’ve likely heard about the damaging effects of free radicals, but do you understand how the cell membrane, mitochondria, and DNA are damaged? This chapter is like a line of defense that explains the interactions of antioxidants, phytonutrients, healthy fats, proteins, dietary fiber, amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in optimizing health.
My father died young of heart disease, even though he had never been a drinker or smoker. When I read this chapter on powerful anti-inflammatory foods, I wondered if we had known about these nutrients 50 years ago, could his life been prolonged past the age of 55? As the author points out, we can see an inflamed cut on the outside of our skin, but we have no inside view of inflammation inside that become the source of disease. The foods we put into our bodies are digested and feed our cells. We don’t see it, so we don’t pay attention until we experience symptoms of digestive disorders, low energy, weight issues, diabetes or a range of physical exacerbations.
This chapter also covers concerns such as allergies, intolerances, and things I had never heard of. I’ll give you one example that caught me by surprise. The book has lots of charts to support the explanatory text. To accompany the section on foods that disrupt body processes, I noticed the chart heading: Degree of Association or Prevalence of Latex. I’m not allergic to latex, but if I was, I would appreciate knowing that foods like bananas, avocadoes, chestnuts, papaya, kiwifruit and several other fruits and vegetables might not be good for me.
Part 2: The healthiest Way of Eating Plan – Smart Menu
Although this is a short section of the book, it is no less powerful. The Smart Menu is like a strategic plan for designing a menu that assures every nutrient you need is consumed daily. In Mateljan’s words, “The Smart Menu will deliver 100% of all the nutrients you need every day with the least number of calories. Only World’s Healthiest Foods are included in the Smart Menu.” I read the menu expecting to find unfamiliar foods. I found one. Miso. I’ve heard of it, have no idea what it is, but looked it up on pages 774 -777 where there’s a chart showing the nutrients in one tablespoon. I also learned where to get it, what it looks like, and that the darker the color the stronger the flavor.
Getting back to the Smart Menu though, it was developed after thorough research and proof of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that our bodies need to build cells, tissues, and maintain good health. The chapter drives into a detailed discussion on the five groups of food that are not simply fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. The five groups in this chapter are cruciferous vegetables, Omega-3 rich foods, berries, nuts and seeds, and beans. Maybe you’ve heard about the miracle cruciferous vegetables, as I have. Now I get it! This food group “shines not only in terms of conventional nutrients (including vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) that support optimal functioning of most body systems, but also in terms of phytonutrients (including carotenoids and flavonoids) that play a more subtle but equally import role in our vitality.” These features make them a uniquely “whole body” support food group. It’s hard to believe, but cruciferous vegetables help prevent cancer. This attribution might be due to how they support these systems of our bodies: inflammation system, antioxidant system, detoxification system, cardiovascular system, digestive system.
Are you curious about how fats can be a preventative for medical problems? Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts, winter squash, cauliflower, sunflower oil, salmon, tuna, and many others can reduce inflammation, keep your blood from clotting excessively, inhibit thickening of arteries, help prevent cancer cell growth, and improve insulin regulation. These are not unfounded claims, but are backed up by years of research, shared in this chapter that guides the planning of your meal choices so you get the most nutrients for the least calories.
Part 3: Nutrient-Rich Way of Cooking
Confession time. I almost skipped over this chapter. I hate cooking. But then I read this appeal and reconsidered. “Nutrient rich cooking is a new way of cooking, and one of the healthiest and most nutritious ways of cooking because it focuses not only on making food taste great but on preserving as many nutrients as possible. Nutrients are essential to keeping us healthy.” We don’t eat out a lot in our family, but we also don’t have the healthiest diet. Reading this book has convinced me of what I have always known to be true, we are what we eat so what have I learned about nutrient-rich cooking? I learned why we cook food, how to minimize the nutrient loss by proper cooking, and how to preserve nutrients flavor and prevent formation of toxic compounds. My eyes caught the chapter heading,
“Cooking vegetables the nutrient rich way is an adventure.”
Okay, I’m all in on this one! I love vegetables, but after reading this chapter I realize my current method probably obliterates any nutrients. Using a few simple tips from the master, it looks pretty easy to modify my way of cooking to practice what I learned in this chapter. “I want to share with you how the Nutrient-rich way of cooking can be the cutting edge innovation to help make vegetables nutritious and enjoyable so you will want them to be an important part of your meal rather than merely a side dish.” I want that too, since I have now learned the nature of vegetables and the important role they play in supporting good health in every part of the human body.
This chapter has numerous references to cooking methods. The author doesn’t just blurt out terminology such as “quick-boil” and “poaching”. He describes them in detail with how and when to use the methods. Do you sauté with extra virgin olive oil? Find out why heating oil, even olive oil, is not a Nutrient-rich way of cooking. In fact, this chapter covers the pitfalls of high temperature cooking. At first all I could think of was great! Now I’m going to learn that I have to eat everything hard and raw. Not at all. Mateljan tells us how to cook foods at the right temperature for the right length of time so the nutrients are preserved. He also offers a bit of a tutorial on cookware if you’re wondering if one type of material is superior to others.
Part 4: World’s Healthiest Foods
This part of the book gets the lion’s share of the content. Naturally, this is where we want to have the most information because this is where individual foods are analyzed, discussed, and determined what part they might have in your diet, and more specifically, your Smart Menu, if you choose to try it.
The degree of knowledge shared in these pages is astounding. It’s like reading an encyclopedia only a lot more pleasant. This book is a virtual mecca for anyone who, like me, claims to be an information junkie. I can’t think of any other place to find specifics about so many foods. These pages of the book cover vegetables, fruits, fish and shellfish, nuts and seeds, poultry and meat, beans and legumes, dairy and eggs, whole grains, herbs and spices. From the author, “on the following pages I focused on fresh, whole, nutrient – rich foods with many health promoting benefits. Emphasis is on the value of minimally processed, non-genetically altered, additive- free foods, which are organically grown whenever possible.”
In the chapter on vegetables each item is profiled. I don’t know a better word to describe how the author has chosen to teach us about individual food items. For each vegetable description he includes the season available, whether or not refrigeration is needed, the estimated shelf life, ways it can be prepared, and the best way to cook it. In addition to that information we learn some of its history, why it’s considered nutrient-rich, whether there are different types of a particular vegetable, and if there are any concerns or fables about it. In addition to basic information, the author also gives us tips on how to select the vegetable how to store it how to clean and prepare it the best way to get the health benefits, including a nutritional analysis of a survey of the vegetable. In other words, everything you’ve ever wanted to know about a vegetable, you can learn from this book.
Let’s talk about fruits next. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t cross a room to pick up a carrot stick but show them a strawberry and like a rocket they snatch it up. I didn’t know this about fruit, did you?
Fruits are distinguished from vegetables in that they contain the seeds that will produce the next generation of plants, which will flower and fruit again.”
I guess I knew it because I’ve had to plant vegetables year after year when berries just came back. Having it written in this book though, was an Aha moment.
Following the same format as for vegetables, Mateljan fills us in on how to select fruit how to store it, how to ripen it the best way, and how to prepare it. As in the vegetables section, the author illustrates in a chart, the nutrient qualities of each fruit. My favorite part was when the author penned his list of health-promoting benefits of each item. For example, cranberries: protection against urinary tract infections, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, promote heart health, and promote gastrointestinal health.
Have you wondered about the different tastes and uses of apples? I’ve never heard of a Pippin apple which is great for making apple butter, jelly, and cider. I have never made any of those things, so that’s probably why I choose Fuji, Granny Smith, and Braeburn.
Fish and shellfish aren’t something I buy regularly, but I was interested in the nutrients of fish, and of course, wanted to understand the mercury levels that have raised some scary dialog on the news over the past few years. While fresh fish and seafood aren’t a regular part of my diet, tuna and salmon are favorites when I eat out. The author agrees that it’s possible to find seafoods that are certified organic, but the standards are still pretty flimsy and not evaluated like other foods are. If you’re searching for ways to get fish and seafood into your diet, this chapter of the book will help you make informed choices. There are also recipes for preparing fish creatively and safely.
“Nuts and seeds are incredibly rich in nutrients. Nuts and seeds may be small in size, but they are big when it comes to nutrition!” Did you know that in 2004 walnuts, peanuts, and almonds were awarded a qualified health claim that permits packages containing them to be printed with,
Eating 1.5 ounces of these nuts every day may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
They have a high concentration of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the Omega-e fatty acid that has been linked to reduction of inflammation. Nuts and seeds also contain good fat, monounsaturated fats such as oleic acid that promote cardiovascular health, even for people with diabetes. I was surprised to find so many health-promoting benefits written about nuts. I love cashews. Now I have a good reason to eat them. They contribute to bone health, are a concentrated source of copper and support heart health. Eat up!
The chapter devoted to Poultry and Meat is the shortest one in this section. Even then, the subject covered everything I have been curious about. First, the author stakes his claim that the only poultry that qualifies as the World’s Healthiest Foods are chicken and Turkey. The dictionary might define poultry with a broader stroke but if you are looking for health benefits, organically raised chicken and turkey are your choices.
Some people crave red meat, or at least want to have it on occasion. George Mateljan has some standards he uses to qualify the meat as wholesome and nutrient-rich. Beef should be grass fed, the cut of meat should be the leanest possible, and please eat it in moderation. An alternative to beef is lamb. I, personally, didn’t’ know lamb to be considered red meat. The author says it can be more tender and flavorful than beef, making it a worthy substitute. Lamb is also one of the richest dietary sources for carnitine. I had no idea what role carnitine played in the body, but if you are an athlete, you might be in the market for lamb as your entre. Carnitine is an amino acid providing benefits to the heart, transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria where fats are converted into energy.
Organically Raised poultry, beef, and lamb are not exposed to antibiotics and growth hormones. Likewise they are fed a wholesome diet of organically raised food. This all leads to healthier muscle, which is the part of the meat we consume.
When someone says they are bringing beans to the potluck, what’s your vision? I know. Right? Pork and beans, made from navy beans, but how would most of us know that, since they usually start out in a can or jar. This chapter introduced me to a kaleidoscope of beans and legumes I’ve seen on shelves at the grocery store, but was mystified at their health benefits. If you’re a calorie counter, I bet you looked the other way when offered beans. As it turns out, beans and legumes are a bit different in their properties but have the same health benefits. Beans and legumes are a good source of low-fat protein. They also are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients.
There might be other kinds of beans and legumes in the world, but start with the thirteen the author profiles in this book. He tells us how to select, store and prepare them. Each of the beans or legumes have recipes for ways to use them along with a nutritional analysis chart just like the chapters on vegetables and fruits. Did you know soybeans are the common denominator of miso, tofu, and tempeh? Me either. I like soy sauce on things. Who knows I could like miso, tofu, and tempeh, right?
If I were to rate my foods in order by favorite, vegetables would be first, followed by dairy and eggs. I enjoy a great omelet and am sure I could easily down an extra-large 4-egg size. Due to the fat content, I’ve started ordering egg whites only. My go-to treat is yogurt and, of course, ice cream. I was curious to see the author’s opinion on eggs and dairy. Looks like I’m in the clear but with health-benefit consciousness of the source of the products. Recommendations are to stick to organic, look for grass-fed cheese, milk, yogurt, and pasture-raised eggs. I wondered how I would find such products and I need not wonder because Mateljan provided two websites in his text that are searchable by zip code, to help with sourcing.
Whole grains, just the words sound robust and healthy, don’t they? I was sure there would be no advice to eat highly processed white flour in moderation, and I was right. Refined grains have been stripped of their germ and bran which is where the nutrients are. When the good stuff is gone, all that remains is calorie empty starch. Back away from the white flour and concentrate on getting vitamins and minerals from whole grains. I tried to think of other grains besides wheat, rice and oats and came up blank. In this section, we are provided a wealth of information about whole grains from composition and serving size to glycemic index and how to cook the grains. Now that I see the list, I recognized most of them. Barley, Buckwheat, Millet, Oats, Groats, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Rye, Wheat Berries, Wheat Bulgur, and Couscous. If you don’t know how to select grains or what it is about them that make grains highly favorable as part of your diet, this chapter will fill you in.
The author even gives us an entire chapter on herbs and spices, including 3 or 4 ways you will want to incorporate them into your meal plans. In each of the segments whether Vegetables, Fruits, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry and Meat, Grains, Dairy, Herbs and Spices, the content covers more than any other book I’ve read on foods.
Part 5: Health-Protective Nutrients from the World’s Healthiest Foods
Part five of this comprehensive book covers health-protective nutrients from the world’s healthiest foods. Which foods are rich in biotin or calcium or omega-e fatty acids or zinc or vitamin C? What are the recommendations for individuals based on ages and what happens if you consume too much or don’t get enough in your diet? This chapter also discusses glycemic index in foods which is a critical factor in how foods impact blood sugar levels. It isn’t just people who suffer from diabetes who are concerned about how their body processes carbohydrates. It’s an interesting and important topic to study.
How did George Mateljan do his research? Where does he keep his research of The World’s Healthiest Foods updated? What do readers and consumers have to say about the quality and value of information in this book and on the author’s website? Find those answers and more in the final chapter of this book.